Netflix appears to be in the coming-of-age business, so much so that it’s easy to overlook one that doesn’t involve superheroes or overwhelming angst, sex, and drugs. This isn’t to shade any show in particular, but to illustrate the mountain “Never Have I Ever” has to climb. The new drama/comedy from co-creators Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher is the type of teen series aimed at the average teenager whose life might not be filled with orgies, but their problems still make them feel like the entire world is going to implode nonetheless. Effervescent and droll scripts coupled with a vivacious cast of newcomers leads to a series that initially feels haphazard but leans into its awkwardness for an emotionally resonant series you want to see continue.
“Never Have I Ever” takes place in the cumbersome transition period known as sophomore year. Cumbersome, in that the initial shock of high school has passed and now the dismantling and creation of an entirely new identity begins to take place. You’re meant to know where your future is headed, yet you barely know who you are. This is where we meet Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), as she prays to various Hindu gods asking for popularity and a boyfriend, no matter how dumb he is. But Devi’s world is more than just boys and school, as much as she’d like it to be. Her father died — at a school concert Devi was performing in, no less — eight months ago and her dermatologist mother is always on her case.
Throughout the show’s 10 episodes the audience watches Devi endure the standard teenage pratfalls of attempting to achieve popularity at the risk of her best friends, her mother attempting to control her, and the boy she’s had her eye on not knowing she’s alive. But what Kaling, Lang, and the fantastic individual screenwriters and directors weave in amidst all the typical teenage hijinks is a conviction that Devi is more than a cliche. Visiting her therapist, warmly played by Niecy Nash, reminds Devi she hasn’t properly grieved her father and is determined to fill her days with relationships and sexuality as a means of avoiding the present.
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Cast as the result of a nationwide casting call, the audience can see why Ramakrishnan was chosen. She isn’t playing a caricature of Kaling, though her skillful ability to drop a straightforward one-liner and awkwardly engage with her Indian heritage shows feels like “The Office” alumnus. It’s in Devi’s blind desire to hide from her grief that lets Ramakrishnan showcase her talents. As Devi spirals into a morass of conflict on top of conflict, with moments from the past coming back to haunt her, the young Canadian actress juggles those emotions while still retaining the humor and charm that’s made the audience bond to Devi. Whether she’s asking her therapist to buy her a thong or boldly asking school heartthrob, Paxton Hall-Yoshida (Darren Barnet) to hook up with her, Ramakrishnan makes you believe it. You were that bumbling high-schooler hoping to muster up enough confidence to feign a casual demeanor.
When Ramakrishnan is paired with Ramona Young and Lee Rodriguez as besties Eleanor and Fabiola, respectively, the trio have all the crackling spark of a John Hughes movie. The three actresses are so perfectly in sync as if they’ve known each other forever and, enhancing the relatability quotient, it’ll be easy to see friends identifying with specific characters. Young, who had a great side role in the teen comedy “Blockers,” shines as budding actress Eleanor. An individual episode devoted to her and her mother shows that, while Devi’s story is paramount to the narrative, everyone in her orbit has problems. The same with Rodriguez’s STEM-loving Fabiola and her struggles with her sexuality. Even Devi’s nemesis, the brownosing Ben Gross (Jaren Lewison) becomes more than the white male trying to best Devi in her quest for scholastic aptitude.
Running concurrently with Devi’s academic problems is the relationship with her Indian mother Nalini (Poorna Jagannathan). The two have a relationship that’s a typical mother-daughter powder keg but the inclusion of Indian heritage takes on an added textual layer. Nalini is convinced Devi is one car ride away from being pregnant or otherwise having her life ruined while at the same time being a considerate mother figure to Devi’s beautiful cousin Kamala (Richa Moorjani). The interactions between the three are where the warmest and most engaging parts of “Never Have I Ever” take effect, especially as the season comes to a close.
This isn’t to say things are perfect within the creation of the narrative. A key element of Devi’s backstory is that she endured psychosomatic paralysis as the result of her father’s passing. This leads to some (allegedly) humorous moments with her friends and an awkward encounter with a group of Indian “aunties” happy to hear Devi isn’t a “cripple” anymore. This wouldn’t feel so weird if the disability wasn’t utilized as a gimmick. Devi mentions it, we see a few scenes and, thanks to Paxton Hall-Yoshida, Devi is cured. Even when she brings it up, usually in conjunction with her dad dying, there’s an acknowledgement that it was little more than an impediment. For a series so open to inclusivity, including having Paxton’s sister played by an actress with Down Syndrome, the treatment of physical disability feels like little more than a proverbial crutch.
“Never Have I Ever” is a lot of fun and a must-watch for teen girls thanks to its focus on the little things. The rush of excitement when a hot boy considers you a friend (never mind he’s flirting with every other girl) or the frustration at having a mother who doesn’t understand you. Though the series takes a few episodes to find its stride, once it does, it’s magic. Netflix would be foolish to abandon this show prematurely.
“Never Have I Ever” will begin streaming on Netflix on April 27.